The Night Of.

I started HBO’s limited series The Night Of when it premiered in July, liked the first three episodes, got busy and just never got back around to it, because it’s the kind of series that demands your full attention, not scattered looks here and there. I finally binged the last three episodes over the past few days, racing to the end, and, well, as usual Alan Sepinwall got it right, although I think on balance I liked the series more than he did.

Co-written by Richard Price, who wrote several episodes of The Wire along with the incredible novel Lush Life and the solid Clockers, HBO’s The Night Of was adapted from a five-hour British TV series called Criminal Justice, keeping the same core elements but adding several critical details. The story centers on Naz (Riz Ahmed, nominated for a Golden Globe Award), a naive college student of Pakistani descent who “borrows” his father’s cab for a night out, ends up picking up a girl, partying and sleeping with her, only to find when he wakes up in her apartment that she’s been brutally stabbed to death. After a sequence that’s both gripping and a comedy of errors, he’s arrested and charged with the crime, which informs the remainder of the series. (If you don’t have HBO, you can watch the series on amazon.)

The Night Of splits across at least four intertwined plot threads that eventually coalesce in the eighth and final episode. Naz is first represented by eczema-riddled, $250/pop defense attorney John Stone (John Turturro, also nominated for a Golden Globe Award), later joined after various machinations by the young idealist Chandra Kapoor (Amara Karan); they’re opposed by DA Helen Weiss (Jeannie Berlin) and about-to-retire Detective Dennis Box (Bill Camp), with each side’s efforts forming one subplot. A third focuses on Naz’s experiences in prison, where he’s taken under the wing of convicted murderer Freddy Knight (Micheal K. Williams, a.k.a. Omar Little). A fourth focuses on the impact of Naz’s arrest on his family and the Muslim community, including the destruction it wreaks on his family’s finances, and the harassment they get from Muslims who fear that it will stir up further prejudice against them and from white supremacists who, frankly, need little provocation anyway.

Awards aside – this is going to lose everything to The People vs. O.J. Simpson at the Golden Globes – The Night Of is strong and compelling but flawed. The storylines don’t carry equal weight or even work that well when presented in counterpoint; the prison stuff felt very rushed and often lurid, while the investigative threads are deliberate, almost cautious, building tension because the stakes are high, and the truth of what happened that night doesn’t become clear until the last episode. If you look only at those two subplots – the prosecutors and the defense – The Night Of is a smart crime drama elevated by several brilliant characters. Interspersing prison scenes or the languid (if entirely plausible) vignettes of Naz’s family presents pacing issues that dragged the middle episodes for me.

And then there is the utter disaster of Chandra Kapoor’s character, who is completely undone by her utterly inexplicable and unrealistic choices in the seventh episode to shatter ethical boundaries between attorney and client, putting her career at risk (or right in the toilet) with no warning or internal justification. Karan nails this character up through that episode, effusing intelligence and confidence with her voice, her posture, and her facial expressions; this is a young lawyer on the come, a woman of integrity, destined for big cases where she owns the room and the cameras, so when the writers have her do two mind-blowingly stupid things as mere plot contrivances (i.e., so Stone can deliver the closing argument), they undo all the work they and Karan have done to build this character into a credible, three-dimensional person.

(Unrelated, but I was floored to find out Karan was born in the UK; her American accent isn’t just good, but precisely neutral. Ahmed is also British, but his character’s accent is very New York, and you can hear little moments where he’s emphasizing certain consonants to harden it. Doing a dead-neutral accent like Karan is a harder task.)

In the original series, the defendant was played by Ben Whishaw (The Lobster, The Hour), so the switch to a Muslim character and son of immigrants introduced an entirely new element to the series, one that the writers chose to explore on the outside of the courtroom but sort of dropped on the way to trial inside it. With white supremacists becoming more open in their hate and their actions, I feel like the treatment of the hostility toward Naz’s family and Muslims in general could have received more thorough handling in the family thread, perhaps with less of the pandering violence scenes from the prison.

Peyman Moaadi (A Separation) is great but underutilized as Naz’s father, reduced to a sad-sack character whose life is spinning beyond his control, and Williams chews up the screen most of the times he appears, playing a character (the criminal with a code) we’ve seen from him before. The series has a bunch of fun cameos, though, with J.D. Williams (Bodie from The Wire) appearing in several episodes, Trudie Styler (an actress best known as Sting’s wife) as a cougar who dated the murder victim’s stepfather, and Roscoe Orman (Gordon from Sesame Street) as the jury foreman. I didn’t recognize rappers Sticky Fingaz of Onyx or Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian, but both appeared as fellow inmates of Naz and Freddy at Rikers Island.

Despite all of those issues with the series, I found the core storyline – did Naz do it, and how would both sides assemble and present their cases to the jury – very compelling. The final episode doesn’t resort to cheap tricks or big gotcha moments; we get small, very human glimpses into most of the characters, even ones we don’t know that well like DA Weiss. The resolution of Naz’s story is poignant yet ambiguous, and Stone gets almost the same kind of half-and-half treatment. But I do think the cat was just a metaphor, nothing more.

Downton Abbey, season six.

I have a new draft blog post for Insiders on several LA-area high school prospects, and I appeared on’s Rocket Talk podcast, talking about my interest in science fiction.

Two important things to know about my feelings on Downton Abbey’s sixth and final season:

* The season as a whole was a bit of a sapfest, a victory lap for the series that gave just about every character a happy ending of one sort or another; and

* I thought the final two episodes were two of their best, even with the surfeit of sentiment, and smiled through just about all of the last episode.

After the negative reactions to the deaths of two major characters in season three – both tied to the actors’ decisions to leave the series rather than sign new contracts – it was obvious we weren’t going to see any great tragedies in this sixth season, and if you were still uncertain about that, the quick resolution of a potential scandal for Lady Mary in the first episode should have made it plain. No one of consequence was going to get any lasting trouble, and creator Julian Fellowes – who, to borrow a phrase from the finale, had written himself into a corner – wasn’t going to incur the wratch of the masses by, say, screwing with Lady Edith’s happy ending.

That said, he didn’t have to go quite as far as he did in making everybody feel good about the conclusion of the series. Lady Edith didn’t just get a happy marriage; she got rich, and married into a title and a palatial estate. Fellowes at least upped the drama around this story in the last few episodes, but did you doubt for a second how it was going to end? It seemed as if he was determined to pair off every character he could, even if the couples were just implied in the last few scenes of the series, and it got a bit ridiculous; this isn’t Jane Austen’s England where you married whoever was close at hand.

Even the development of Thomas Barrow’s character over the last two seasons of the show, which was the most interesting facet of the show as it became increasingly focused on getting everyone married and settled, was a mixed blessing. The six seasons saw characters age and change directions, but few if any were truly different people by the end of season six from what they were in season one; Barrow did in dramatic ways, both discovering things about himself (including a tacit acceptance of who he is after self-loathing nearly killed him twice) and revealing unexpected aspects to his character. He’s still got the hint of spite in him, as when he tries to spoil Gwen’s return for her, but this time around there’s a sense of remorse, and the sadness that drives his behavior too. Jim Carter, who portrayed Carson, earned four Emmy nominations for his performance, but I’d argue Robert James-Collier, who played Barrow, had the more difficult task and was the more compelling character.

(By the way, I only just discovered that Carter played Déjà Vu in Top Secret, which was my favorite movie when I was a kid. I had a vague, unsettling feeling I’d seen him somewhere before.)

But the softening of Barrow meant that the downstairs portion of the show lost its main antagonist, and even Barrow’s former adversaries became increasingly invested in helping him over the course of the sixth season. Fellowes seems to have tried to replace Thomas’ (and, previously, O’Brien’s) bit of villainy with Denker’s shenanigans over at Lady Violet’s house, but that was pure slapstick in comparison. And, as the show’s only gay character, Barrow ended up without a romantic aspect to his character except as a plot point, as with his attempts to forge a platonic friendship with Andy or his pursuit of a quack therapy to “cure” his homosexuality.

The best aspect of the sixth season itself was the return of Lady Mary’s vicious side; she was always the show’s most central character, and her complexity and her desire to be an independent woman in an era that did not reward or even tolerate such thinking gave the show the sort of difficult protagonist it needed to avoid becoming total fluff. She had that love-to-hate quality that makes a great character, but season six gave us a little more insight into her personality, thanks to some help from Lady Violet, who was increasingly reduced to quip machine this last season (although Maggie Smith can still deliver a barb with the best of them). I had some hope Fellowes would leave her unmarried as the series ended, because she’d spent so much time insisting and acting as if she didn’t need a husband – and she didn’t, not in practical terms – so watching her turn into a big mush in the Christmas special was a bit of a disappointment, although we did get one last glimpse of her strength of character when she turned all business (instead of going to pieces as you might expect a badly written female character of the era to do) when Anna’s water broke.

Fellowes wrote himself into this spot because he made us like so many of the characters, even the flawed ones, over the previous six seasons, and because he created a house where everyone, upstairs and down, was part of an extended family of sorts. The relationship between Lord Grantham and the servants was probably highly unusual, if not outright unrealistic, for the time, and the camaraderie among the servants wasn’t balanced enough by the sort of petty squabbles and jealousies that arise in any group of people living and working in such close quarters. But you’d be a cold viewer to root for an unhappy ending for Daisy or Moseley or Lady Edith – those last two in particular were so downtrodden before season six that it was cathartic to see them finally fall into something good. That makes for a satisfying ending for the viewer, but the show never quite recaptured the dramatic spell Fellowes managed to cast in seasons one and two.

Other stray thoughts:

* It’s emblematic of the victory-lap nature of the season that three older male characters this season ran into what appeared to be serious health problems, but none of those turned out to matter much in the end. Lord Grantham and Lord Merton are fine, and Carson’s “palsy” was a mere plot contrivance that won’t prevent him from living happily ever after. (The man just faced the loss of his main purpose in life, but he was just sort of waved off screen.)

* Carson’s palsy may have been essential tremor, which I only bring up because Fellowes has the condition and is the honorary president of England’s National Tremor Foundation. The disorder is hereditary, and is eight times more common than Parkinson’s, so the few details we did get on Carson seem to fit.

* I knew Lord Merton wasn’t going to buy it, but I fully expected his pernicious anemia to be cured by the treatment that, at the time of the show’s setting (1925), had only recently been discovered by the American scientist George Whipple and was just about to become widespread. Fellowes would have been bending the timeline slightly, but having Lord Merton’s condition cured in the nick of time by a new discovery would have been both more realistic than the misdiagnosis resolution and a nice hat-tip to science.

* Amelia Grey, Lord Merton’s witchy daughter-in-law, had so much potential as a new troublemaking antagonist had the series continued, but instead she was left a one-note gold-digger in a subplot that was left uncooked the whole season.

* What exactly do all these boys see in Daisy? Aside from the fact that she looks about 14, as Mrs. Patmore said in the finale, she’s only nice to the ones who aren’t interested. Also, the subplot about Daisy standing up for Mr. Mason was a big waste of time; once it was resolved, in typically fairy-tale fashion, it was as if her outbursts to her employers had never occurred.

* Lady Rose returns, but left her newborn at home in America because … her nanny wouldn’t allow her to bring the child? I’m not surprised her milquetoast husband allowed this, but when did Rose allow people to start pushing her around?

* When all the servants were giggling and rushing upstairs, I assumed they were going to see Anna and the baby, not to say goodbye to Edith and Bertie.

* I was at least glad to see that Carson was still Carson, imperious as ever, still blissfully unaware of how the others view his shipshape-and-Bristol-fashion sensibility. That doesn’t make him the bad guy, but at least one character escaped the finale’s sugarcoating.

* Lady Violet had to have the last line of the series, and she did, ending it on a bit of a bittersweet note with her response’s to Isobel’s comment that we are moving forward toward the future rather than back into the past, saying, “as if we had a choice.” Perhaps Fellowes was giving us one small sign that he knew that the best moments were already behind us, and he was just putting a bow on what, despite its flaws, remains one of the most successful dramatic series in TV history.

Broadchurch, season two.

This week’s Klawchat had lots of overreactions to early-season stats. For Insiders, my latest draft blog post covers first-rounders Donny Everett and Mike Nikorak, with word on a pop-up arm in El Paso and some early top ten gossip.

The British series Broadchurch originally aired as a one-and-done season of eight episodes built around a murder mystery, with the real focus of the writing on the effects of the crime and the investigation on the residents of the small town of the show’s title, many of whom would end up suspects at one point in the season. The show was so well-received by British audiences and TV critics that ITV has now turned it into a recurring series, with season two just completing its first American run on BBC America this week and season three to begin filming this summer. (I reviewed season one while contrasting it to the inferior U.S. remake, Gracepoint.

The formula of the first season no longer applies, as the two detectives assigned to the case, outsider Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and Broadchurch lifer Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), solved it in somewhat shocking fashion in the last episode. That presented several challenges to the writers: how to restart the narrative greed that an unsolved murder brought to the show, and how to continue to push the various characters into uncomfortable situations that could provoke the dialogue that is the show’s greatest strength?

An American series would just kill off another character and start over, of course – has anyone thought about the spike in the murder rate of Naval officers and midshipmen with every new NCIS spinoff? – but Broadchurch went a less traditional route: The murderer, who confessed in season one, pleads not guilty, leading to a trial that enmeshes the town in more scandal, while Alec gets a second chance to solve the old case that wrecked his marriage, career, and nearly his life. The resulting eight episodes of season two moved more quickly and were more involved, with a half-dozen new and significant secondary characters, but they never slacked on the incisive dialogue that powers the show. (Of course, at some point they will likely have to kill someone else off, just to give Alec and Ellie something else to do together.)

The trial itself is the framework for the season, but its outcome isn’t in much doubt, with many of the steps – notably the exclusion of the confession, without which season two would have been about an episode and a half long – easy to see coming. A reader mentioned on Twitter that the writers took many liberties with the British judicial process, none of which were evident to me as an American. But viewing Broadchurch as a crime drama misses its point: The writers develop complex, fascinating characters and put compelling words in their mouths to reveal truths about how we live in small communities where everyone knows everyone else and someone else probably knows that thing you think is secret. Finding out who was guilty was critical to season one, but we already know he’s guilty, and the trial’s outcome was both justified by what we saw of the court proceedings and because of the opportunities it presented for the plot.

Meanwhile, the Sandbrook case brings the man Alec believed committed both murders, Lee Ashworth, into Broadchurch, the result of what might be a long con of Alec’s designed to get Ashworth, acquitted when a critical piece of evidence was stolen from a detective’s car before trial, to confess. Ashworth, his wife Claire, their neighbor Ricky (father to one of the victims, uncle to the other), and his wife Kate had a convulted web of interrelationships, jealousies, and possibly infidelities that give the investigation itself layers of intrigue beyond ordinary investigation. Having just read the first Philo Vance novel, I was reminded of his axiom that physical evidence is useless and true detection should be the result of deduction, as the solution the Broadchurch writers have given us here barely relies on any evidence at all, and one of those bits – the floor – itself indicates nothing at all without Ellie’s reasoning.

The season also brings two new characters into the fold in the lead prosecuting attorney, Jocelyn Knight, and her former protegee, Sharon Bishop; the two have a testy, unfriendly relationship, and each is fighting her own private war. Those side stories were too isolated from either of the main plot threads and seemed to exist solely to give the characters some depth and/or to set up subplots for season three, but the character of Jocelyn, played superbly by Charlotte Rampling, OBE, is one of the most well-developed female characters past the age of 60 I can think of on TV. Her integration into the fabric of the show was smooth and sets her up to become more central next season, possibly working together with her quondam rival to free the latter’s son from what might be aun unjust conviction. (Bishop is played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, shorn of her locks and the convincing New York City accent she wore on her days on Without a Trace.)

The season narrowed its focus on the holdover residents of the town primarily to the Latimers, the parents and daughter of the murdered boy, whose lives are ripped open anew by the killer’s plea and the resulting trial. Mark’s evisceration on the stand in particular puts new strains on a marriage that was never strong to our eyes yet appears ready to tear apart with a gentle breeze once his latest secrets come out for everyone to see. While the daughter, Chloe, remains mostly a prop – hey, someone had to hold the baby in court! – Mark and Beth benefit from the added screen time, with Beth showing greater strength in tragedy while Mark’s grief manifests itself in unexpected ways. Of the other denizens of Broadchurch, only Paul, himself a cipher much of the season, gets a big moment, as he becomes the moral center of the town in the final sequence of the season.

The writers have dropped enough seeds into Broadchurch’s soil to harvest plenty of new storylines in season three, even without introducing another crime to investigate, but there are a couple I’d most like to see them pursue. Alec and Ellie have zero sexual tension between then, yet Alec’s ex-wife was visibly jealous of the bond he’s formed with his new partner – and Ellie, meanwhile, shows herself how much Alec’s friendship, bizarre as it can be, has meant to her in her own time of emotional turmoil. Her own evolving relationship with her son Tom and perhaps Alec’s with his daughter Daisy, overtly mentioned as a priority for him in the closing scenes of season two, should also come more to the fore. I imagine we’ll see Susan Wright and Nigel again, and Becca Fisher seems to just be a paperweight, but screen time spent on them takes it away from these other characters or Ellie’s gambling-addict sister or Jocelyn in her reemergence from self-imposed isolation. There are probably too many stories here to tell, which is a testament to how rich and full a town that Broadchurch‘s writers have created.

Downton Abbey, season five.

In case you missed it, check out this week’s Klawchat transcript.

Season five of Downton Abbey was, to put it kindly, a bit bland. After the previous season, which found the series’ soapier qualities often ramped up to unwelcome levels, the most recent season saw very little of consequence happening at Downton until the final two episodes (including the Christmas special), so while we still had plenty of the dry wit that is typically sprinkled throughout the dialogue, there was little of compelling interest to bring me back from week to week.

The two most significant storylines, at least when viewed by the weight of the issues they covered, were the investigation of the murder of Mr. Green and Lady Edith’s ongoing attempts to maintain a relationship with her daughter, Marigold, who’s been taken in by a tenant family at Downton. The former storyline took the major dramatic twist from season four, a storyline that won Joanne Froggatt a Golden Globe Award in January, and stretched it out in what I thought was the worst way possible, wringing it for extra drama with no consideration of the human costs. In season four, at least, she showed the kind of post-traumatic reactions you might expect from a rape victim, especially in an era where victims were often seen as deserving blame, but here it’s as if nothing ever happened to her – her character seemed fully restored to her season three form except when Mr. Green’s name was directly broached in her presence. Using a rape storyline to give an actress whose primary role before that had been to stand around and be cute felt tawdry, but at least served a higher purpose of adding drama to the series while touching on a social issue that remains important; discarding most of it, saving only the part that allows for a nonsensical murder investigation storyline that had only one possible ending feels venal.

Lady Edith’s storyline followed a similar if less culturally important arc, where a real issue (single motherhood, the “shame” of bearing a child out of wedlock in that era) became fodder for a plot thread that largely disappeared once it became inconvenient. The child she bore on the Continent last season, then brought back to place with the Drewes, was clearly going to end up with her because the writers of the show seem to have largely eschewed unhappy endings for any character since the public outrage over the deaths of two characters (both because the actors portraying them declined to renew their contracts) in season three.

And that is the crux of the Downton problem, at least at the moment. Julian Fellowes has created such a broad cast of largely likable characters that no one wants to see them come to any (more) grief; I’d compare it to the wonderful, sentimental finale of Parks and Recreation last month, where we saw the futures for all of the main characters and even a few side ones, and everyone lived happily ever after (although Tajikistan is off). But Downton Abbey isn’t a sitcom, so avoiding anything too dreadful happening to any of the characters can lead to a season that’s entertaining in bits but overall rather bland. And the apparent trend toward rehabilitating Thomas’ character to imbue him with some humanity, where he’s starting to show real empathy for other servants, responding to Ms. Baxter’s selflessness by doing a few good turns for others, means we’re losing the lone true antagonist in the house. If Spratt is to be the one awful person on the show, I’d just as soon do without a bad guy.

The final two episodes did at least have their share of big moments, including the seriocomic leadup to Rose and Atticus’s wedding with a few touching examples of the lengths to which a loving parent will go to secure the happiness of his or her child, along with the preposterous arrest of one character, a plot twist that seemed more like a convenience to allow Moseley and Baxter to do one of the kindest turns anyone’s done on the show so far. That’s exactly where we’ve come through five seasons of this show, though: It’s just a really nice group of people, mostly doing nice things for each other, trying to cope with a society that’s changing quickly in a direction that is outmoding their entire way of life. Perhaps season six will see new characters replacing Branson or Lady Rose (as actress Lily James seems set for stardom now that she’s playing Cinderella), but I found myself wondering if Fellowes was setting the show up for a victory lap, one more season where they settle Lady Mary’s storyline and wrap up the series. After a season like this last one, it’s hard to imagine him going back in for the kind of drama that drove the first three seasons to such critical and popular acclaim.

What did you think? Did I miss the excitement this season?

Broadchurch vs. Gracepoint.

The 2013 ITV series Broadchurch was a single-story, eight-episode arc that began with the discovery of the body of 11-year-old Danny Latimer on the beach of the small Dorsetine tourist town and followed the investigation led by new Detective Inspector Alec Hardy and Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller, whose son Tom was Danny’s best friend. The series focused on the personal impacts of Danny’s death and the subsequent revelations uncovered by the police, the media (local and national), and through the consequences of the various questions those entities ask of anyone who might have been connected to the crime. By splitting the show’s attention across two foci, the writers gave us something we seldom see: a show about a murder that depicted real grief, sorrow, anger, and denial. The script gave the characters the space to develop the depth to make them play like real people, able to show a broad range of traits and emotions that don’t appear in shows that try to tell a story in just 44 minutes.

Broadchurch earned broad critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, winning the BAFTA for best drama in 2013 while Olivia Colman won best actress for her performance as D.S. Miller and David “Argus Filch” Bradley won for best supporting actor for his role as Jack Marshall. Alan Sepinwall of HitFix named it one of his top 20 shows of 2013 as well. The show was a huge commercial success in the U.K., and will return for a second season next month, even though its creators originally conceived the series as a one-and-done.

Of course, this called for an American-made version to air on a U.S. network, because God forbid anyone ask us to watch a show that isn’t set here. At times a shot-for-shot remake of the original, Gracepoint lengthened the series by 25%, spending more time with side characters and misdirections that blurred the sharp focus of Broadchurch on the people involved. The superlative cast of the American series continually delivered, with David Tennant reprising his role as D.I. Hardy (renamed Emmett Carver, because reasons), two-time Emmy winner Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad) as Ellie, two-time Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook) as Susan Wright, and three-time Oscar nominee Nick Nolte as the renamed Jack Reinhold. I doubt any will receive major award nominations, given the mediocre reception critics gave the remake, but all four were above the threshold for consideration, especially Weaver. However, the story meandered away from the heart of what made Broadchurch great – the focus on the emotional lives of its characters – in what I think was a misguided attempt to heighten the mystery, which misunderstood the point of the original series entirely.

I’m still convinced the main reason FOX chose to remake Broadchurch rather than air the original is the accents. David Tennant’s Scottish accent isn’t as easy to understand as an upper-class English accent would be, and I think in general there’s a belief in Hollywood that Americans won’t watch a TV show where all of the dialogue comes at them in the King’s English. (You’d think by now the success of Downton Abbey would have left that myth as dead as a doornail.) The former part I can understand – I had a few instances where I had to rewind to catch something Tennant said – but I hold no truck with the latter. And FOX made the innkeeper character Becca into English expatriate (named Gemma) on Gracepoint, even though she wasn’t American on Broadchurch.

Such changes in characters made up the bulk of the gap between the American and British versions of the show, and in almost every instance, the alterations were for the worse. Gracepoint appeared to be trying far too hard to appeal to the audience, commensurate with the #SuspectEveryone marketing campaign, with multiple characters rewritten or recast to be more suspicious or just creepier:

* The vicar Paul Coates is just that, a clergyman who runs the town’s computer club for kids and plays the peacemaker in a town with few churchgoers; the American priest Paul has carried a torch for Danny’s mom for over a decade, and becomes increasingly forward with her rather than just providing comfort and counsel, while he engages in a sort of cold war with her husband, Mark.

* Both versions of Mark commit the same transgressions, but the American one is colder to his wife, openly hostile to Paul, and miserly with his employee Vince.

* Vince – called Nige in the British version, which won’t do because no one born in America has ever been named “Nige” – is an angry but sometimes well-meaning simpleton in Broadchurch; his American counterpart is constantly scowling, is more devious and greedy than Nige, and is shown butchering something (which turns out to be a deer he shot) in his shed.

* Susan Wright is irredeemable in both versions, but she’s far more sinister in the remake, appearing to threaten Tom and frequently seen spying on others’ in the background; the only time she reveals her true nature in the original is the threat to Maggie.

* Maggie, meanwhile, was turned into a bad punchline in Gracepoint. The original Maggie receives no backstory; we hear nothing of a personal life or her orientation. The American version is a lesbian who says she “realized (she) didn’t like penises,” and is given a raccoon-like hairstyle that ages her at least ten years. (I assumed her character was supposed to be in her late 40s or early 50s, given her looks and demeanor, but the actress portraying her is only 38.) There was no point to revealing Kathy’s orientation other than to provide a token gay character and play it for that one cheap laugh; her personal life never comes into play in the story, and she’s largely a minor character the rest of the way.

* Karen White, the big-city reporter in Broadchurch, shows actual signs of humanity when her articles on Jack are rewritten to vilify the shopkeeper, and again at the end of episode eight when she twice shows her remorse through tiny yet significant actions. Her American doppelganger, Renee Clemons, has no second dimension beyond her ambition, and appears to be there just to look hot and annoy the viewers with her lack of empathy. She doesn’t appear at all in the Gracepoint finale.

* Even Chloe’s character changed, although at least the Gracepoint actress looked like she could possibly be the biological child of the two actors playing her parents. The American version was more rebellious, and what was an innocent “happy room” her boyfriend created for her in Broadchurch became a more sexualized dance in the bar area by the docks.

There were character shifts in the American version that worked, but those appeared more organic, the result of different casting rather than changes in dialogue or actions. Anna Gunn’s Ellie is a stronger character from start to finish – less mousy, more vocal, less tolerant of Carver’s indignities as they happen, although in the end none of it amounts to much given the conclusion of the story. Jacki Weaver, who was amazing as the matriarch of an Australian crime family in Animal Kingdom, made Susan Wright more three-dimensional with her portrayal, making her seem almost addled at times even as she reveals herself to be vindictive. I found it easier to accept her as a victim than the English version, played more stoically by Pauline Quirke. (According to the Broadchurch wikia, Vince the dog was played Quirke’s dog Bailey.)

Tennant’s performances varied beyond the shift to an American accent – which never bothered me in the least, although I’ve seen several critics harp on it as a problem for them – as he was more curt and dismissive with Ellie in Gracepoint, lacking the signs of empathy he flickered in the last few episodes of Broadchurch. His heart ailment seemed to only factor into the core narrative as a way to force a time limit on the investigation, since he has just a few hours to finish the case before he’s forced to take a medical leave. However, the American remake’s insertion of his daughter as a brief subplot proved a complete waste of time, a way to stretch the original series by 88 minutes of content.

Red herrings – like the backpacker, who was a total dead end – ended up giving Gracepoint a sense of density and slower pacing than Broadchurch with no added payoff; if anything, the result was a net negative, taking a series that focused exceptionally well on the emotional impacts of the murder of a child and the ensuing investigation and turning it into a murder mystery. American police procedurals rarely give much if any screen time to grief; we get a quick police interview with the next of kin, some tears or perhaps some wailing, and then we don’t see the family member again unless s/he is the killer. Broadchurch threw that script out the window; the fabric of Danny’s family starts to strain at the seams, while the investigation ruins one man’s life and exposes secrets and lies in those of several others. The finale of Broadchurch was more British than any other aspect of the series: It was slow by design, so that the viewer couldn’t help but linger over the wounds opened or reopened by the revelation of the killer’s identity, followed by the beautifully shot memorial, for a much stronger buildup to Paul’s “I passed the word; maybe the word was good” response that closes the season.

Below this point, I’ll discuss the ending and the identity of the murder. If you haven’t watched either series, you may wish to stop now.

The writers made a slight change to the conclusion of Broadchurch when remaking it as Gracepoint, although the shift was as much about motive as it was identity, providing a much less satisfying explanation in the end while also straining credibility around Tom’s ability to keep his part of the secret from his mom for the entire length of the investigation. It points, again, to the American version’s compulsion to sharpen its edges, which felt to me like a way of talking down to an American audience that FOX felt wanted a bigger emotional impact. (The conclusion didn’t matter for viewership, though; the series was DOA after the first week’s ratings were weak, something I blame on FOX marketing the show strictly as a murder mystery rather than as a high-quality drama.)

Danny’s murder at the hands of Joe was half a surprise, because the writers shoved it in our faces in the penultimate episode’s confrontation between Ellie and Susan outside the police station, where Ellie asks Susan,
“How could you not know?” and thus sets herself up for an ironic outcome where she learns just how Susan might not have known what was happening in her own house. That heavy-handedness aside, however, the writers did a better job planting the seeds for Joe’s role in Danny’s death in both versions of the show, depicting him at various points as a devoted father and husband who finds himself gradually fading in importance from the lives of his wife and older son. It was a simple explanation, one that took place right under the noses of everyone in town, and Danny’s death is the result of the unmollified rage of a repressed pedophile. Gracepoint made Joe’s attraction to Danny more explicit, and turned Danny’s death into a tragic accident that involved Tom, who was trying to protect his friend, not hurt him. Such things can happen, of course, but the crime was no longer a murder, but the ensuing coverup by Joe. It felt like a change for change’s sake, made because the American series had to offer a different ending.

As odd as it might seem, I’d still recommend both series. If you only want to make the time investment in one, make it Broadchurch – it’s better written, has much more heart, and is 88 minutes shorter. You still get David Tennant, and several of the secondary characters, especially the vicar Paul, get more sympathetic/less prejudicial treatment. But Gracepoint has equal or better performances from several cast members, and because the central story is so similar it’s no less compelling, just a little out of focus when compared to the superior source material.

Homeland, season three.

I’ve joined the chorus of complaints about season three of Homeland since September, which is in large part a reaction to how amazing the first season was, but also how far the show has shifted not just in direction but in theme since that point. Tonight’s season-ender had more of the usual nonsense – absurd plotting and convenient coincidences that required more suspension of disbelief than a Uri Geller show – about which you should all feel free to rant in the comments.

I have one specific thought that made me want to weigh in after watching tonight’s show. For me, Homeland didn’t go off the rails this year, neither at the beginning nor in episode four when the first Big Reveal took place. I think the fundamental shift in the show took place in the middle of season two, when the writers chose to go from a show about facing an ill-defined, largely unknown, inbound threat to U.S. security to a show about outbound activities like attempting an internal coup d’état inside one of our strongest enemies. That sea change necessitated two adjustments in the direction of the show, both of worked very strongly against its success and defied what made the first season so compelling:

• It altered the tenor of the tension of each episode, reducing it while also narrowing its scope. In season one, the threat was global: The U.S. is going to be attacked, at some point, by unknown persons, and it could be massive in scale. During season two, the threat to the U.S. was diminished – nearly all of the season was devoted to smaller matters like chasing down individual suspects, with the eventual attack coming more or less out of nowhere. Season three was entirely about individual tension – first with Carrie appearing to be a prisoner of the CIA, then later with the attempt to engineer that internal coup within Iran’s security apparatus. Characters we know were placed in physical jeopardy, or saw their careers placed on the line, but the country was never at risk.

• When the protagonists were facing an inbound threat, we the audience were kept in the dark because the protagonists were in the dark themselves. In season three, with no inbound threat and only the outbound effort to bait, catch, and recruit a critical asset from Iran, the protagonists knew more than the writers could tell the audience, resulting in the massive unreliable-narrator arc at the start of the season but continuing through the next nine episodes. It got to the point where I trusted nothing that I saw; if Brody had done a double twist off that crane and stuck the landing in the season finale it wouldn’t have surprised me. The only way to create the tension the writers wanted was to hide, mislead, and lie. I was okay with it once. I was not okay with a full season of it.

The other fundamental problem with season three, for me, dated back to a problem I had in season one, something that I doubt is universal but started to detract seriously from the viewing experience in season two: I never cared about the relationship between Brody and Carrie. It seemed improbable and forced at the start, and eventually devolved into farce. Carrie becoming pregnant with his baby – really, neither of them thought about birth control? – read like a desperate attempt to infuse life and interest into a relationship that, for me, was nothing but a distraction from the cloak and dagger stuff that made season one click.

I won’t go into all of the plot holes and inconsistencies, as Alan Sepinwall has done that already. I don’t entirely agree with Alan’s sentiment that there shouldn’t have been a second season, but I agree that the way it was handled was less than ideal, and a once-great show has lost its way, to the point where season four is going to have to entice a lot of viewers, myself included, back.

This is pretty much always true, but just in case: Anything is fair game in the comments below, including spoilers and comments on stuff I didn’t mention. I’m curious to hear what others thought about tonight’s episode and the season as a whole.

Homeland, season two.

If you missed it, my analysis of the R.A. Dickey trade is up for Insiders. There will be a podcast on Thursday and I’ll chat that afternoon at 3 pm Eastern.

Season two of Homeland turned out to be very different from season one in plot, tone, and pacing, to the point where it felt for much of the middle of the year like a different show featuring the same characters. (Perhaps not quite to this extent, but you get the idea.) I tend to agree with Alan Sepinwall’s* take that Homeland redeemed itself with a strong finale that got at least most of the way back to the domestic-terrorism angle of the first season, but I think it didn’t move far enough away from the doomed-romance storyline that threatened to take over so much of the season and even occupied too much of the first half of the finale.

* I should mention that Alan’s got a new book out, The Revolution Was Televised, on twelve TV dramas that changed the genre. I haven’t read it, because I’ve only watched one complete series (The Wire) he discussed, but I love Alan’s work and will recommend the book on that basis alone.

I’ve never really bought the Carrie/Brody romance as a deep emotional connection. I get how two very broken people might find solace in each other, and I suppose we’re supposed to infer there’s physical chemistry between these two (I don’t see it – Jess and Mike look like they want to jump each others’ bones when they’re in the same room, but Carrie and Brody’s intimacy seems forced). What I don’t get is how these two broken people are really in love, unless they’re pretending they are, including deluding themselves right down to their comments at the end of the show that they were “so close.” They really should never be that close again, not if the show wants to regain the realism that characterized the first season but was all too absent from the second. And if, as Sepinwall suggests, Brody is largely absent from season three while the focus shifts to the rebuilding of the CIA with Carrie working on the side to clear Brody’s name, I don’t think that’s a bad thing for the show at all.

The loss of realism in season two was coupled with a massive uptick in its pacing. Where season one was slow and methodical, with the CIA team often a step behind the terrorists and making (by TV standards) painstaking progress in their investigations, season two absolutely flew by, with Bigger Moments and faster plot twists. We’re not in network procedural territory here, but the tension from the first season’s lack of story churning was a great part of its appeal to me, reminiscent of British series that aren’t afraid to make the viewer wait for a big payoff. I think season two was far less realistic right up to the finale’s biggest twist, where no one seems to notice that an SUV is parked in the middle of the Langley campus, something that would have likely spurred an evacuation of adjacent buildings and an immediate assumption that the vehicle was rigged. (As for who moved the car, assuming it’s a character we’ve already seen, my money remains on Galvez, whom the writers seem to have been setting up since the middle of the first season as the mole, including his presence at and survival of the Gettysburg assault.)

You can also count me among the fans who didn’t care for the Dana/Finn hit-and-run storyline, which became largely an excuse for Morgan Saylor to do that thing with her sleeves more often than before. Sepinwall’s post mortem with the show’s producers indicates that this subplot was going somewhere else but never got there, which showed in the finished product. It played out like an afterthought, with its only value a modest addition to the venality we’d already seen from Walden.

Aside from three very strong season-long performances from Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, and Mandy Patinkin – the latter probably getting better material for Emmy submission time this year – season two’s other main strength was in exploring the complicated entanglement between Brody and Abu Nazir, from the former’s inability to fully sever his ties to the terrorist mastermind to the latter’s presumed willingness to die to set up the cataclysmic attack of the season finale. I also credit the producers for turning the page on Nazir after two seasons, yet doing so in a way that doesn’t leave the viewers with much closure. He’s dead, but his organization seems to be living on, and his spectre will inhabit the grounds of the decimated CIA for years. Simply catching the bad guy can’t end the threat, because that’s not how the world works, and setting off the emotional catharsis of watching Abu Nazir die against the reality that the threat against us survives the death of one man was one of the best-plotted elements of the season.

What I’d like to see from season three is a devolution from the romantic elements, including the Carrie/Brody relationship and the Brody/Jess/Mike triangle, back towards the tense spy-story themes of season one. That first season was constantly infused with doubt about Brody’s actual intentions and how far he’d get with the plans handed to him, along side his difficulty in readjusting to civilian life. His character has been poisoned by the events of the finale for the time being, to the point where, if he appears anywhere on the show again, he’ll have to be arrested and thrown in that same prison where Eileen Morgan was held. I can’t see him becoming a central character again unless his name is cleared, and that process should take a full season or more. If the show turned away from him entirely, I’d certainly miss Lewis’ outstanding performances, but it might be better for the show in the long run, much as The Wire turned away from Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell to introduce new antagonists for the investigators to chase. If the star-crossed lovers story takes over more of the next season, however, there’s a good chance I’ll tune out of the show entirely, because that’s so far removed from the reasons Homeland hooked me in the first place.

If you haven’t gotten into Homeland at all, I strongly recommend season one, even if my review here sort of turned you off on season two. That first twelve-episode arc ranks among the best single seasons I’ve seen of any show, in large part because it eschews the rapid-fire pacing of most American dramas and builds tension through more organic means.


I’ll give the series Homeland, which just took four of the five major Emmy Awards for dramatic series on Sunday, the highest praise I can: For the first time ever, I’m now a Showtime subscriber, because I didn’t want to miss season two when it starts on September 30th.

Homeland, adapted from a ten-episode Israeli series called Prisoners of War, follows the return of a POW, long presumed dead, from eight years of captivity in Iraq as he readjusts to normal life and finds himself held up as a hero and used as a political pawn by the current Adminstration … all while a rogue CIA analyst believes that the soldier is actually a terrorist sleeper sent to the U.S. to carry out a major attack. The first season’s twelve episodes dance on the edge of implausibility but rarely cross it, with brilliant pacing that belies how much of the series’ action is happening in something approximating real time.

Claire Danes, playing the CIA analyst Carrie Mathisen, is the series’ ostensible star, but while her performance playing an obsessed workaholic who is hiding her bipolar disorder from her colleagues was superb, I thought Damian Lewis, as the former POW Nicholas Brody, was even more deserving of the postseason award. The viewer knows from the first moment on which side Carrie sits, but Lewis has to spend much of the season bobbing and weaving to keep his true intentions hidden from the viewer and, to some extent, from other characters. Lewis is practically asked to play three or four separate characters, if you include flashback scenes to his captivity as well as the different faces he shows to colleagues, to his family, and to Carrie. Danes’ performance might not have won if not for the difficulty level of the final two episodes of the season, although she was incredibly convincing as the just-barely-hinged obsessed analyst who is absolutely sure that there’s an imminent attack but can’t quite convince anyone in a position to do something about it. Mandy Patinkin is also superb as Carrie’s closest ally within the CIA, while Morena Baccarin, playing Brody’s wife, is gorgeous with or without her top on and I suppose she’s a pretty good actress too. (Obligatory Firefly plug here, from when Baccarin had long hair.)

Where Homeland succeeds most is in bringing realism to unreality: The basic premise is, at least so far, a fiction, an American soldier who might have been turned by Islamist terrorists and who is intent on causing harm to his own country. Moving forward from this starting point, however, the writers kept the series grounded with mostly realistic, or at least plausible, depictions of the the various plot threads, including Brody’s difficulty readjusting and the CIA often being a day late and a dollar short when trying to chase people who don’t want to be found. Absent are the mindless midday shootouts on urban streets present in most network police procedurals. Absent is the uberhacker who takes a few seconds to “break through the firewall” and cracks non-alphanumeric passwords with a few keystrokes. I don’t know exactly how the CIA operates, but at least I never thought that Homeland was insulting my intelligence with shortcuts and misused jargon just to move the plot along. And by making the possible antagonist a white American male, the series forces viewers to confront some of their own biases, even subconscious ones, where the subject is Islamist-based terrorism.

The series did slip into implausibility, for me, with the extent of the personal interactions between Carrie and Brody, a relationship that evolves very strangely over the course of the season, although there is a plot payoff to all of that in the season’s final two episodes. But I was more disturbed by the treatment of Carrie’s bipolarity as a critical plot point, especially that without her medication, she becomes an insane savant, barely capable of rational thought. It wasn’t even clear to me why the character needed to be bipolar, or needed to be shown going off her meds, to advance the overall plot, and I don’t like seeing mental illness trivialized through fictional depictions that show sufferers as cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.

The season finale wrapped up many of the outstanding questions – I don’t want to spoil anything for those of you who haven’t seen it – but left enough plot points open to create suspense for the second season. There is still a plot afoot at the end of the finale, although I won’t say how or why. We still don’t know who the leak within the government is, a detail I expect to see resurface in the second season. And some of the backstory remains untold; I still felt like the motivation for the threatened attack felt incomplete and am somewhat anticipating more flashbacks that fill in those blanks for the audience. This kind of episode-to-episode or season-to-season suspense was completely lacking for me in the first seasons of both Breaking Bad and Boardwalk Empire, two critically-lauded series that many of you love but that couldn’t hold my attention into their second seasons. To create suspense without forcing viiewers to suspend their disbelief is a rare skill for writers in any medium, but Homeland does so, making it, in my opinion, the best dramatic series currently on American TV.